An Orchestral Musician’s View of Community Engagement: II

Guest post by Penny Brill

Penny Brill is an alumna of the Community Engagement Training offered by ArtsEngaged. Here she continues her advocacy for musicians to participate in community engagement efforts. (Part I of her essay was posted last week.) As she points out at the end of her essay, however, this work is not for all artists. In addition, for a variety of reasons arts organizations should not insist that artists participate in or lead community engagement efforts. (Let (Make) the Artists Do It (?)) The onus for commitment to and efforts in engagement must rest with arts organizations. Partnered with artists dedicated to and trained in engagement, their efforts can yield great results.


An Orchestral Musician’s View of Community Engagement: II

Repeated from last week: In a time of divisiveness, heightened awareness of inequalities, and lack of diversity, we as orchestral musicians have an opportunity as individuals, as part of small music ensembles, and as part of the full orchestra to collaborate with others in making a significant contribution toward positive change in our communities.

We can begin by asking” How can we help?” With the resources we have available in the form of contacts, visibility, and musical skills, how can we support pressing needs in the community? Can we collaborate in ways that will optimize use of our respective areas of expertise?

Our first step in answering that question is to go out into the community, out of our usual pathways, to observe and listen. We begin to see our city through other people’s eyes by spending time in their neighborhoods and noticing what issues they face. What does connection or engagement look like? Here are two more examples, ranging from one musician up to a large ensemble. Interactions utilizing individual musicians involve the greatest learning curve and adjustments, but each of these four settings requires some modification of the orchestral musician’s role.

Example 3: Over ten years ago, a string quartet of PSO players began participating in a memorial service at the local children’s hospital (CHP) to honor children who died there in the previous year. Spiritual Care, the medical team, support staff, the CHP music therapists, and administrators all contributed in one way or another to the service. Families contributed messages to their loved ones in the program booklet. Parents and siblings of children who died years before each talked about what life was like now. Our music, a mix of quartet arrangements and an improvised solo meditation, chosen to give hope, reassurance, and support, was an essential and powerful component of the service. The unspoken message of the service was that the whole community was working together to help these families through an unimaginably difficult time. Family members felt understood, connected, and supported.

Example 4: This past January the orchestra presented a creatively designed concert entitled “Lift Every Voice: Resonating Music, Words and Legacy” which was a long overdue recognition and celebration of African American talent, accomplishment, and culture. Narrated by Phylicia Rashad, it included the August Wilson Symphony by Kathryn Bostic, “Teenie Timeby Jay Ashby, Lyric for Strings by George Walker, 14-year-old Sphinx cellist Ifetayo Ali playing Lalo, and an inspiring, wide-ranging collection of other solo and ensemble pieces. This was a spiritually uplifting, unifying, and powerful shared experience with a remarkably diverse gathering of musicians and audience members.

Developing and implementing these kinds of group events challenges us to recognize what the audience needs, creatively find appropriate music, and identify musicians with the appropriate skills. This takes some time and much thought. But when we see positive results, we are profoundly energized, knowing we have connected in a very meaningful way. Our musical contribution is valued and has a positive impact.

Note: Not every musician is suited to participating in interactive, small group experiences: the musician may play an instrument that is too loud, hard to move, or unavailable at the venue. A musician may be uncomfortable working with the intended audience.
They may need help finding the right music, identifying the needs of the audience, discovering how to address those needs musically, or developing appropriate social skills to address the participants in an inviting manner. Because of the learning curve involved, the musician may not have the time, ability, or willingness to learn, follow someone else’s lead, or adjust as needed. But for those with a willingness to put in the time to listen and connect musically, this kind of interaction can be meaningful and uplifting.

There is ample opportunity to create programs as varied as the cities and the people we find to partner with. It takes a willingness to step into unfamiliar territory, listen, notice, create, and grow, but this work couldn’t be more necessary during these turbulent times.

Listen. Connect. Engage.

Penny Brill


Penny Brill is a graduate of Smith College and the Juilliard School and has been a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s viola section since 1980. Previously, she taught at the Oberlin Conservatory for two years and played viola for one season with the Buffalo Philharmonic. Ms. Brill was part of the AW Mellon Orchestra Forum as well as the Mellon Task Force, both of which were looking at the future direction of orchestras. She is the former Treasurer of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and chaired the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Committee. She is currently on the Board of U.N.-affiliated Music as a Global Resource, as well as the International Association of Music and Medicine (IAMM).

An Orchestral Musician’s View of Community Engagement: I

Guest post by Penny Brill

Penny Brill is an alumna of the Community Engagement Training offered by ArtsEngaged. Here she advocates for musicians to participate in community engagement efforts. As she points out at the end of her essay, however, this work is not for all artists. In addition, for a variety of reasons arts organizations should not insist that artists participate in or lead community engagement efforts. (Let (Make) the Artists Do It (?)) The onus for commitment to and efforts in engagement must rest with arts organizations. Partnered with artists dedicated to and trained in engagement, their efforts can yield great results.


An Orchestral Musician’s View of Community Engagement

Over the last twenty years I have played for children and adults with special needs, dementia patients, hospitalized children, grieving parents, and veterans in rehab or hospice. The number of musicians ranged from one to a hundred players. Audiences varied from ten people to thirty-five thousand. Some events were onetime only. Some were a series of interactions over a period of months.

Each interaction, no matter the scale, has the potential to improve our connection to each other, to reveal how our differences can be strengths and to reaffirm our common humanity. Ideally we all grow from these experiences.

In a time of divisiveness, heightened awareness of inequalities, and lack of diversity, we as orchestral musicians have an opportunity as individuals, as part of small music ensembles, and as part of the full orchestra to collaborate with others in making a significant contribution toward positive change in our communities.

We can begin by asking” How can we help?” With the resources we have available in the form of contacts, visibility, and musical skills, how can we support pressing needs in the community? Can we collaborate in ways that will optimize use of our respective areas of expertise?

Our first step in answering that question is to go out into the community, out of our usual pathways, to observe and listen. We see the urgent issues that a neighborhood faces, and look for ways to be supportive.
What does connection or engagement look like? Below are four recent examples, ranging from one musician up to a large ensemble. While interactions utilizing Individual musicians involve the greatest learning curve and adjustments, each of these four settings require some modification of the orchestral musician’s role.

Example 1: Twenty years ago I first started playing for patients and their families in the radiation oncology waiting area of a local hospital and under the guidance of a music therapist in the transplant area of another hospital. In addition to acquiring and learning a large amount of music I didn’t previously know, I observed that:

  • The people in the waiting area weren’t talking to anyone before I played, but began to talk to each other afterward.
  • Some wanted to share their stories, and playing music was the start of that conversation.
  • They were listening to my sound and musical intention, not how I played technically.
  • When I was teamed with the music therapist I was more effective at picking the right music and aiding the patient or family than when working alone. I could support and enhance what the music therapist was doing. 
I could see that playing and interacting in those settings completely changed the atmosphere from one of isolation and anxiety to one of connection and relief.

Example 2: Just this week a staff member and I interacted with a group of fifteen Alzheimer study members. They sang rounds, moved to music, and practiced deep breathing using some methods we adapted from the teachings of former Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal tubist Arnold Jacobs. By the end of the session the participants were visibly more relaxed and interacted with or were more aware of each other. Through connection and engagement with us, our interaction helped them with the social, cognitive, physical and artistic goals of the program.

[Next week, Ms. Brill will provide more examples as well as advice about the role musicians can (and perhaps should not) play in this work.]

Listen. Connect. Engage.

Penny Brill


Penny Brill is a graduate of Smith College and the Juilliard School and has been a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s viola section since 1980. Previously, she taught at the Oberlin Conservatory for two years and played viola for one season with the Buffalo Philharmonic. Ms. Brill was part of the AW Mellon Orchestra Forum as well as the Mellon Task Force, both of which were looking at the future direction of orchestras. She is the former Treasurer of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and chaired the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Committee. She is currently on the Board of U.N.-affiliated Music as a Global Resource, as well as the International Association of Music and Medicine (IAMM).

Announcing

It’s official. As predicted in Changes, ArtsEngaged has a new and, to my eyes, snazzy website. The snazziness is entirely due to the efforts of our Marketing and Sales specialist, Achia Floyd. Many, many thanks Achia!

While new is always (well, often) fun, what is most important to me about this website upgrade is the opportunity to share many more resources with the community engagement field. The Engagement Essentials page is packed with links to information and downloadable materials that were not available before. Here are some of the newly available resources:

In addition, the following, most (but not all) of which have been available before, are accessible from a single location, again on the Engagement Essentials page.

Another advantage of the new format is that we will be able to continue adding resources as they are developed. It is our hope to be adding things on a regular basis. We hope you take advantage of what we have to offer and that this proves to be a valuable addition in support of community engagement.

Engage!

Doug

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Engagement as Pure Research

Community engagement sometimes begins as an attempt to accomplish a specific task–mount a festival, put on what is considered to be a performance relevant to community interests (note the construction of that phrase!), or, ahem, satisfy the requirements of a grant. By now, readers of Engaging Matters understand that any attempt to employ community engagement to achieve an organizationally-envisioned end result is, as I have heard described, bass ackwards. It will also not likely yield much in the way of positive results.

More savvy community engagers understand that the relationships come first and that specifics of programming or other manifestations of the relationship will follow. Still, they harbor general thoughts about the possibilities as they begin. This is natural and totally understandable.

Recently, however, on a couple of occasions I have been impressed by the experience of people in the field whose relationship building work yielded results that no one–either in the organizations or in the communities with which they were working–could have imagined in their wildest dreams. These were results far bigger and far more inclusive of multiple communities than the organizers had ever imagined.

Each time I have heard such an example I am reminded of the differentiation between applied research and pure research in the sciences. The former, as I understand it, is an attempt to achieve a specific end, like more efficient solar cells. The latter is simply to figure out how something works or why something happens, with little concern about how the insights might be used.

Community engagement of the applied research variety will likely (and maybe should) be the norm in our work. However, there is a very good, practical case to be made for relationship building for the sake of relationship building. Pure research in the sciences has a notoriously low “success” rate if measured in breakthroughs, even though negative results assist future researchers in pointing them in other directions. With community engagement, relationship building for its own sake will almost inevitably yield a far higher percentage of good results and, the potential for mind-blowing impact on the community is reasonably high.

Since, for the sake of our own sustainability we need as many community connections as we can get, the downside risk of engagement as pure research is relatively low if we have the courage to pursue it.

Prepare to be astonished.

Engage!

Doug

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Two-Phase Engagement

Community engagement practitioners are frequently asked to justify their work using traditional arts marketing/development metrics: ticket sales and donations. Don’t get ahead of me. This is not a touchy-feely objection to practical outcomes. Ticket sales and donations as well as grants from “unusual suspects” and friendlier public policy for the arts are all results of effective community engagement . . . eventually. However, when anyone in any field is attempting to sell things to a new group, if that group does not have any relationship with the seller or does not see any way it benefits from the product, sales can only come after considerable effort is put in to establishing a relationship, getting to know the people, and demonstrating to them (not simply telling them) the value of that product. In the arts, with at least some groups, this process is made more difficult by our being identified with “the 1%.” It’s not simply that we’re an unknown. It’s that we are seen as representatives of a power structure in which they have no trust.

So, with many, if not most, new groups, phase 1 of engagement is establishing trust and demonstrating value. The indicators of success are not (yet) sales and donations. Instead, this is the phase where relationship benchmarks are crucial. Are people willing to meet with representatives of your organization? Do they tell their friends and invite them to discussions? Do they begin to ask in what ways they might work together with you? Do other groups start to come to you based on what they’ve heard about your work with the first group?

The answers to these questions (and many more that can be tailored to your particular situation) demonstrate the depth of the relationship. The impulse to push too soon either in programming or sales/development is understandable. It is also almost inevitably counter-productive. We don’t ask strangers or brand new friends to lend us money. And we don’t try to build a house until after the foundation is poured. Early in the relationship building process what is important from a management point of view is making certain that trust and understanding (on both sides) is growing.

When that is established, phase 2, the exploration of programming ideas (demonstration of benefit) and results closer to the “bottom line” become more reasonable.

I am aware that there are objections to anything that does not yield immediate results. We as an industry are stretched thin both in terms of personnel and finances. However, for there to be any future for our work, we must drastically expand our reach. An expensive, labor intensive industry cannot long survive with the support of only small percentages of the total population. Community engagement–targeted relationship building–is one of the only practical ways of achieving this end.

Engage!

Doug

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